Is it worth analysing and reviewing non-fiction?

You know how sometimes real life and the blogosphere collide? Well recently someone told me that they didn’t think I should review non-fiction books. Now my first reaction was something like this…

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But then when I cooled down a bit, I actually came up with an argument as to why it’s just as important to review non-fiction as fiction…

To answer the question I posed- the short answer is YES! I mean, I started my blog to tell the truth- to be honest about my feelings regarding books in a way I often couldn’t be in real life. Part of that might be to recommend books and part of that is to discuss the way a book touched me- and for so many books what can really strike me is the ideas it holds inside. So what would be the point if we could not talk about the ideas in non-fiction? Why limit myself?

Well, for a lot of people, it is the fear of being called arrogant if we happen to disagree with greater thinkers than ourselves. BUT- and I shouldn’t really have to point this out- just because someone disagrees with another person doesn’t mean they think they’re better than them- just that, in the words of John Mill, “mankind are not infallible”. Moreover- how limiting would it be to the progress of human thought if you could never disagree? Disagreement is the very essence of finding truth and having a healthy debate (Also “how dare you disagree with my favourite philosopher you arrogant prick” is not an argument or a refutation, just sayin’ 😉 ).

Non-fiction creates a discussion and encourages the spread of ideas. So much of it is crying out to be shared, discussed and argued with. A lot of these thinkers did not want people blindly listening to them or obeying them like lemmings running off a cliff…

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Of course, there are different ways of looking at and writing about non-fiction. I’ve personally found the more philosophical a book, the more room for thought there is in my post about it. And that is so exciting to me! It keeps me on my toes and makes for more diverse types of reviews.

For me, and for many of you, book blogging is a part of our journey as readers. We evolve with the things we read with the things we read and if we can’t or don’t feel comfortable arguing back or discussing ideas then we may as well pack the whole thing in.

Quite simply, when I talk about ideas I learn about them. As fun as it is to be a passive reader, it is very rewarding to actually have to think while I read from time to time. And knowing that I have to write about it afterwards really helps me stay focused. I learn so much when I decide to read and review something non-fiction. I won’t be stopping any time soon.

So what do *you* think? Should we discuss and review non-fiction just as much as fiction? Let me know in the comments!

Prattling on about the way books are marketed

So there’s something really strange going on in the world today. People do not like to be told that things really aren’t as bad as they think- especially when it comes to issues that they care about. But sometimes things really aren’t as bad as some people think. Especially when it comes to the way books are marketed.

Over the years, I’ve seen *a lot* of different complaints and claims made about publishers that to my mind are misguided, nonsensical and really inaccurate. The two main grumblings I’ve heard are book cover designs being deliberately aimed at one gender or another and using initials for female author’s names.

Straight off the bat I could say that these are really storm in a teacup complaints. But I thought it would be worthwhile to break down some of this and provide a counter-argument for a change.

The first and most obvious issue with the objection that book covers are marketed in a certain way is that capitalism doesn’t work the way these people think. Commercialism is quite simply about supply and demand. It’s about the freedom to choose. As fun as it no doubt is to cook up some half-baked conspiracy theory about how publishers have some sinister agenda to hide female writers from us, or deliberately discourage men from reading certain genres, just from a business perspective I can say this would be a really foolish thing to do. To be blunt, if a commercial operation can take your money, it will! If these marketing techniques didn’t work at all, no one would use them.

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No prizes for guessing the book genre here…

But why then are books marketed this way? And why is it important? Well, we as book bloggers will all admit that we *love* judging books by their covers. Book covers are often designed in a way to give us some indication of what to expect. When I see a half-naked man on a cover I know what I’m getting in for. I like to have my expectations met and don’t like being misled about what’s actually between the covers. In all honesty, I wouldn’t buy a book that didn’t show me anything about what’s inside and I’d be peeved if the cover was, say, an innocuous picture of a boat and it turned out to be hard-core erotica.

Now we are all old enough here to be able to make these decisions for ourselves, but I would like to point out that there doesn’t seem to be a major issue of bias in the way children’s books are chosen. Given that 78% of people in the publishing industry are women, I’d be interested to hear people trying to make that argument. Anecdotally I can add that as a child I had no problem picking up masculine books, like Alex Rider, which FYI were stocked in my all girls’ school library. And I have male friends whose shelves are stuffed with Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson or Enid Blyton books.

One final point that I’d like to make is that there is a logical reason behind the decision to use non-gendered names. JRR Tolkein started the trend over fifty years ago, anonymising his name to give his fantasy works an air of mystery. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I see initials being used. To this day, it’s still a trend for both male and female authors of fantasy to give their books the allure of the unknown. An author like V E Schwab would certainly be playing into that tradition- and I would argue that given she was already published under Victoria Schwab, it kind of negates the argument that she needed to do this in order to be successful. And let’s be honest, it’s never been a secret that J K Rowling is a woman- but even if this was a decision that was made because she was woman, I feel like this was a kick in the teeth for aforementioned authors like Dianna Wynne Jones, who had conquered this market twenty years prior. Anyway there is no comparison with using initials to authors like Austen having “a novel by a lady” written on the cover of her books or Charlotte Bronte going by Currer Bell. Personally, I think it’s a shame to make a mountain out of a molehill over an issue like this given the stark comparison.

Forgive me for this random, rambly piece- this is just something that has been on my mind a while and thought I’d share.

So what do you think? How do you feel about the way books are marketed? Let me know in the comments!

What is wrong with pretentious books?

So I’ve spoken at length before about things I hate in books- being badly written or moralising are definitely up there as the two most obvious things to put me off a book, but I have never spoken at length about one of my *biggest* pet peeves. And since I seem to have reviewed the quintessential pretentious book the other day, I figured now was a good time to discuss this.

Trouble is it’s hard to define, even if you know it when you see it. There are some clues that give a pretentious book away: they never have a plot, a fair number of the characters will be mouthpieces for the author,  and there will be lots and lots of authorial intrusion. Not that these taken individually are always bad things, yet if you find them all in the same place, you can often guess what kind of book it will be.

What creates a gulf between “deep” books and pretentious ones in my mind is that it is marked by “philosophising gone wrong”. Of course, it doesn’t need to be said that a book isn’t pretentious just because a book is discussing heavy issues or making complex conclusions (but obviously I’m saying it anyway, for clarification). I will hit a person over the head with my copy of Crime and Punishment if they dare say books should never be profound! BUT there are times when a nice philosophical debate nosedives into “what the hell” territory. The most obvious being when the author thinks it’s a good idea to start moralising- and while not all books that moralise are pretentious, you can bet that all pretentious books include moralising.

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As many of you know by now, I *hate*moralising- when the author puts on a sanctimonious tone and starts imposing their irrelevant views on the story, I’m a goner. But pretentious books *always* take moralising to a new level. Because in pretentious books the author is always trying to bamboozle the reader with their (*ahem*) brilliant observations that obviously no one has ever heard before (sorry to disappoint, there are no new ideas, get over it). And one of their favourite ways to do this is to use deliberately obtuse language.

Now, obviously I’m not referring to beautiful language (I officially give you permission to get all dewy eyed over Fitzgerald or Keats etc). No, I’m talking about when you read a sentence and go “ye wot?” There is a huge difference between beauty and obscurity. I mean, in the words of Keats “Truth is beauty”- deceptive language is actually harmful to the soul rather than nourishing.

Really, what pretentious authors fail to note is that the smartest people disseminate their ideas in as clear ways as possible. Nietzsche, for instance, said incredibly complex things in the simplest of sentences. While his words, like “God is dead” give the illusion of simplicity of thought, they deliver a hammer blow to the psyche. A pretentious fool would use innumerable, over-complicated ways to deliver their message- often something that doesn’t even make sense anyway (*cough* As I Lay Dying *cough cough*).

Nor do intelligent people talk in circles. They get right to the point and do not waste time on the surface level details. A fool is bogged down by issues such as whether Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy or a comedy- which I can tell you from experience is not a subject that warrants an hour long discussion (it’s a tragedy with subversive comic elements at the start to temporarily mislead the viewer- see, nice and simple). At best you’ve wasted an hour of your time, at worst you’ve convinced yourself of a lie and reached some pretty daft conclusions (yes, I’ve met people that think Romeo and Juliet is a comedy now).

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All of this serves a single purpose. By making the meaning obscure, talking nonsense and distancing the reader from the truth, the reader is unable to relate on an emotional level. And this “unrelatability” is the biggest tell-tale sign of pretentious literature. Somewhere along the way, the author forgot that the book was supposed to make you feel more than just confusion. Art is not supposed to be an author rummaging round for a few lost brain cells- it is a quest for the reader’s heart and soul. Evidently, this is a test that pretentious writers fail every time. They are the kind of authors that never leave the Shire, let alone make it back home again.

(Yes I just finished with a Lord of the Rings analogy)

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So what about you? How do you feel about pretentious books? And what books do you think are an epic failure? Let me know in the comments!

When is something too much?

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So I’ve always thought of myself as having a strong constitution when it comes to violence of all colours and creeds in TV and literature. I mean, my favourite TV show is Game of Thrones, I enjoy a good Tarantino movie and have watched legs get sawn off in House (ok the last one did make me wince). And when it comes to books- I’m a diehard Hardy fan and can recognise that Lolita is a great work of fiction (even if I did throw that book at the wall multiple times while reading it). Yet as you may have seen in my post yesterday, even I have my limits. Sometimes there are stories and portrayals of things that just make me goddamn livid.

After watching the rape episode in Outlander, pretty much all I could think was “what the actual fuck”. And that’s a somewhat toned down version of my thoughts. I was seriously pissed off by it- which is even more surprising as I am not the kind of person to criticise a show for raping and torturing a character (hello- GOT fangirl here…)

So it got me to thinking- are there limits to what is acceptable? Can fiction ever be too much?

JJ Azar did a great piece a while back on the subject, which I highly recommend you read, but I wanted to give my reasons why violence is both good and necessary in literature:

  • “Life is suffering”– even if it’s gratuitous (sometimes even because it’s gratuitous) it’s cathartic and gives some alleviation from very real suffering
  • Furthermore, it’s often contextually relevant and realistic
  • It serves a purpose in the plot– not just for the catharsis, but sometimes it can be integral for a characters journey- which leads me onto…
  • Pain creates heroes and villains– without it these are just ordinary people- and we need extraordinary people in our fiction in order for it to deliver its message and make us feel the impossible
  • In this way it often serves a mythological and symbolic purpose in the story– images of suffering, such as those of Christ on the cross, serve as an immutable force in fiction. They carry all the weight of stories that have been remembered from the dawn of human consciousness. There is a power in that which cannot be explained by mere words.

So even though Outlander missed the mark for me- and I can see that it didn’t come close to hitting a lot of these targets- I cannot argue that there is a time when fiction ever goes “too far”. We may very well have our individual limits,  but ultimately nothing is too much if it is done well and for a purpose.

What do you think? Can fiction ever cross a line of what is and is not acceptable? I know this is definitely a more contentious issue- but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Can personal experience ruin a book?

Right now I’m gonna be talking about…

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…you have been warned.

So obviously it’s coming up to Valentine’s Day and I’m thinking about *feelings* more, but really what inspired this post was that recently I read a book that I didn’t relate to. Now that’s hardly noteworthy… except that, without going into detail, I had personal experience of the subject matter and really should have related to it.

It got me wondering if personal experience can actually ruin a book. Not in that it might have “too much” of an effect– I will give a story credit for affecting me emotionally and even for taking me to dark places- but when it fails to hit that (sometimes excruciating) mark I will frankly be a bit peeved. When a book holds back on the painful punches, when it simplifies things, when it moralises- I feel a million miles away from it. It’s no good if difficult stories are prettied up for the sake of the audience. And it’s only more noticeable if I can say “no no no, it’s not like that at all”.

That’s not to say every experience is the same- but sometimes the way a character or story is constructed just doesn’t add up. Take Thirteen Reasons Why– a story written to reflect on the motivations of a friend who committed suicide. For me, and others, it missed the mark, because not only did it trivialise the reasons for suicide, it felt like it was ramming a message down my throat and the character’s emotions were way off (to name a few of the thirteen issues I had with it). In short, I just did not find it relatable.

Now none of this is to say that you have to have personal experience to write these difficult or traumatic stories. As someone that likes fantasy I don’t think it should always be “write what you know”- heck if that were the case Harry Potter wouldn’t exist (unless JK Rowling is secretly a boy wizard abused by his relatives). But- and here’s a big BUT- the author *really* needs to have empathy and go to all of the dark places inside the head of someone in a horrible situation- otherwise, what’s the point? If an author can’t write about someone’s struggles, then they should give their protagonist an easy life and be done with it. Don’t ride on the coattails of something difficult for the sake of being *deep and meaningful*- it will only do the issue the author is trying to bring to light a disservice.

Ok, that got a little bit more ranty than I meant it to. But what do you think? Am I the only one that has this problem? Let me know in the comments!

Problems I have With Moralising Books

If you remember my book review yesterday, you will know I wasn’t too enamoured with A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. And one of the reasons I hated it was cos it was very moralising. I have often stated that I *hate* overt message books- but have never really gone into the whys and wherefores of what makes me feel like face palming so hard that I knock all memory of the book from my head…

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Now not all books that have messages will do this and not all books that do this will drive me mad- but here are my reasons why I can’t stand moralising books:

  1. Superbly stupid-non arguments. I’m not in primary school. You can’t just say “war is bad” and “don’t be mean”- I won’t just nod along robotically. I want nuance. I want to be treated like an adult and not patronised by what I just read. Heck- I want the complex arguments and analysis of Tolstoy (ok I don’t expect this from everything I read- especially not YA- just don’t make halfwit statements- ok??)
  2. If you’re going to debate something, put up a fight. No truism back and forths. If two characters are discussing, say, the existence of god- try not to make one of the characters a moron. It doesn’t make the mouthpiece for your agenda look good. It makes it look like you don’t have the confidence to thrash it out properly and it doesn’t sound believable. Unless you *want* your characters going on long tirades and probably getting quite heated, *leave this out of your book*!
  3. once-upon-a-time-finale-recap-featured-image-05102015-970x545The argument is just plain wrong. Sometimes views espoused in books are so objectionable or misleading that I just cannot get on board with them and it completely spoils my enjoyment of the book. For example, Once Upon A Time has put murder on a par with killing for self-defence before- not cool! A writer is entitled to present their views of course- but here’s the kicker- the reader is entitled to disagree and if your views are so flimsy they can be debunked in five seconds, you might want to rethink putting it in.
  4. Also, you might want to make sure the argument doesn’t undermine itself! Watch out if you accidentally undermine your feminist arguments with horrible characters too (I’m looking at you 99 Days). NB: Before anyone in the comments yells “99 daysthere are no objective truths”- just know that’s a subjective opinion, so as a moral relativist, you have to accept that other people are not moral relativists and that they are right in their own way (yeah that’s right, I just used moral relativism against the moral relativists…)
  5. When it’s invasive and gets in the way of the actual story. This often goes for any character giving a political speech and basically being used as a mouthpiece to preach- is this a religious text??? Keep it subtle!
  6. Similarly, try to keep on point. Honestly, if you’re writing a contemporary, why would you want to go off on some rant? Not gonna lie- this always makes me wince. Think very hard about whether this actually improves the story.
  7. If every single one of the messages is pessimistic– aka “people are shit, everyone’s evil, what’s the point of living”. And this is coming from a Hardy fan. Pessimism is best put into symbols and plot- not preachy characters or narrators.

So agree or disagree? What do you think about moralising books? Let me know in the comments!

The “White People” In Books Debate

So recently I read on someone’s blog (who shall remain nameless) that “white people” was a bookish pet peeve. When clarifying, she said she didn’t like the “whining of privileged twats”- which is not what I would call an improvement.  It’s not exactly a legitimate literary criticism either- yet I see this kind of thing around a lot and it makes me sad.

I love diversity in books- diversity in general makes life more interesting. But the criticism of a main character for being “white” or “male” or “het” is too much for me. I just want decent characters and I don’t care about their race or gender or sexuality- and I shouldn’t have to. I don’t think it’s right to only ever look skin deep. I know there are other opinions out there- but to me it all ends up sounding like doublespeak. Can’t we just focus on this please:

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“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King

Somehow that message seems to have gotten muddled over time. Because there is another side to this discussion that I just don’t get. And that’s the whole “white people should/shouldn’t write about people of colour” debate. It’s become a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing. I can’t really see how that kind of thing helps anyone.

Sorry, but arguing “there are too many white people in books” or “too many white authors” sounds pretty damn racist to me- no matter which way you swing it- and I say this as someone who is part of an ethnic minority and doesn’t fit comfortably in the “white” category. (Yeah, I pass for white but am not actually white- shoot me- the Nazis certainly would have)

And that’s all I really have to say on the matter- I know I may have said too much for some people’s liking, but I’m a total maverick that way and think it’s a discussion worth having.

What do you think about this discussion of white people in books? I’d really genuinely like to hear a variety of opinions- so hit me up in the comments below!